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Digital Portfolios: Collecting and Harnessing Student Progress

  • November 07, 2016|
  • 2 years ago

by Sam Morris

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Global Education Solution Architect

Recently, the idea of using portfolios in assessment has made a comeback thanks to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which allows states to use other methods beyond testing to evaluate student educational achievements. Portfolios provide the foundation for students—and teachers—to track their progress and projects over time and serve as a historical repository of accomplishments that can be used when applying to colleges, seeking jobs, or simply reflecting on students’ educational journeys.

From preschool onward, students amass a significant volume of assignments and projects. Parents’ refrigerators have traditionally been the display space for many of these projects, where they are proudly displayed until they find their way to the trash bin or a box in the attic or basement. Some of us are lucky enough to still have access to these memories and accomplishments, but for many, the physical manifestation of these efforts no longer exist.

Thankfully, digital portfolios not only keep this work in better condition but also significantly aid teachers in assessing students’ progress using their work samples. In the past, this required pulling together hard-copy binder compilations of work completed. Today, digital technology simplifies the process of both collecting and assessing assignments.

Digital portfolios can maintain an ongoing record and repository of educational accomplishments that can travel with students from school to school and, eventually, from job to job. That doesn’t mean the refrigerator won’t remain a place to proudly display their achievements, but it does make easier to review what they have learned from their studies.

Pros and Cons of Digital Portfolios

The primary benefits of digital portfolios are obvious: the ability to save, store and access volumes of information. Nureva’s education blog offers some additional benefits, most notably that they foster student ownership. Students can comment on drafts and critique each other’s work, and this two-way communication deepens learning and allows for ongoing conversation surrounding students’ work. Selecting work to include and share also increases digital literacy for both students and teachers.

These benefits also lead to some disadvantages, however. Portfolio assessment obviously takes significantly more time than grading a standardized test. Also, because most teachers haven’t been trained in portfolio assessment, additional education and development is necessary to ensure they’re able to provide actionable feedback to students. Digital tools can aid in this process to a certain degree, as discussed in my previous post on evaluation and assessment.

Useful for All Levels of Learning

From pre-K to college, digital portfolios could be effective across all ages. At a rural school in Maine, for example, students have been compiling their work in digital form since pre-K, documenting years of progress. A high school in Idaho has taken this approach so far that it considers itself an “unschool,” because it focuses on completing a series of projects and relying on digital portfolios instead of grades.

The trend continues in higher ed. Shawnna Meyers, a recent graduate of Penn State’s Corporate Communication program, took advantage of digital portfolio resources available through campus and attributes her success to the e-portfolio she created. She was hired before graduation after being able to share her portfolio with potential employers. The University of Alaska recently rolled out e-portfolios to its entire campus, hoping for similar results for their students.

Teachers can leverage digital portfolios too. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards emphasizes teacher portfolios for reflection. This Vanderbilt University site explains how and offers examples, samples, tips, and additional resources.

Getting Started: Technology and Best Practices

This teacher offers advice to others on how to use digital portfolios effectively, suggesting that teachers begin with a class portfolio sharing group work. This way, students can see the class progress and recognize the benefit of a digital portfolio before undertaking individual portfolios.

When considering best practices for adopting e-portfolios, there are two main areas to keep in mind: technology and communication. Before getting started, take time to research the best vendor and tech tools for your class’s needs. Then, communication with parents and students will be critical to ensure involvement in putting together the e-portfolios. As you begin to look for the technology to support e-portfolios, consider several free options. These include Google Sites, Evernote, WordPress, Edublogs, and Weebly.

Takeaway: Technology is changing the ways that students learn and teachers teach, and it is providing options to maintain an ongoing record of the process over time, from preschool and beyond. Ensuring the selection of portfolio options that are transferable and interoperable can ease the progression of students from school to school and into the workforce.


1. “Why Paper Just Can’t Compete–-the 7 Benefits of Digital Portfolios” Nureva. July 22, 2015.
2. “5 Free Tools for Making Digital Portfolios” Edudemic. February 9, 2015.
3. “Portfolios Hold New Promise for Schools” District Administration. June 2016.
4. “No Teachers, No Grades: ‘Unschool’ is Coming to Idaho” Idaho Education News. June 13, 2016.
5. “E-Portfolio and Shared Academic Programs Impact Student Success” Penn State Worthington Scranton. May 31, 2016.
6. “5 Lessons Worth Learning About E-Portfolios” Campus Technology. October 21, 2015.
7. “Teaching Portfolios” Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. 2016.
8. “Getting Your Class Started with Digital Portfolios” KQED. February 18, 2016.